May 2, 2011

Theology and Worship

One of the things that I have often thought about is how theology undergirds everything we set out to do as Christians. Put another way, what we believe about God influences every decision we make. So if our theology is flawed, then our actions will also suffer in the same ways. Therefore it is important to spend time reflecting theologically (we do this all the time without the baggage of calling it theology anyway). One of the key areas of Christian action that I am passionate about is worship. Worship is not only shaped by our theology it also plays a key role in shaping our theology. Theologians have often described this dialectic or reciprocal relationship between theology and worship.

Just one area where our theology and worship meet is in our image of God. If our understanding of God is not one who is actually worthy of worship, then it is hard to inspire passionate worship. Likewise, if we do not sing about a God who is authentically worthy of worship then what is the point? The problem most of us develop is that our understanding of God takes on all kinds of baggage as we go through life. How significant people have behaved towards us can directly influence our understanding of God. What people we respect tell us (by their words and actions) about God also has a deep influence on our impressions of God. The further away from the corporate worship settings (where we speak and sing about our God) we get the less impact worship will have on our image of God. And I should also mention the all too common problem of Biblical illiteracy which leads to misshapen views of God. Why would you worship anything less than the God we sing, speak and read about in our Christian traditions? The simple answer is that you wouldn't.*

Worship definitely plays a role in leading us to discover the amazing qualities of our God. Worship that is theologically grounded is always the best. I remember the first time a pastor told me (when I was a young worship leader in a Foursquare church) not to use a certain song anymore. It was actually one I liked singing with great passion, so I asked "why?". This has become one of my favourite theological questions. He explained how that particular song spoke about how we established God's reign and he felt it robbed the glory from God. In other words - the image of God that this song evoked was of a god who was really only God because we declared it to be so. The theological flaw in this song is that it missed the fact that God is God not because we say so - but because that's what God always is and always will be. Anything less is merely a projection of our desires; what we would like God to be. And like my pastor friend recognized we need a God who is really God, not tamed by our desires to exercise some control over God in any way. Convinced that this was a theological problem with this song, I dropped it from our list of worship songs.

Over the years I've become more and more sophisticated in my discernment around worship songs. I feel at times like I'm terribly picky. Actually I will stop singing in worship settings if I feel the words portray something less than the awesome God I meet in the gospels. I do this because I do not want to disengage my brain in worship. And if you know me you would know I love to worship exuberantly. But more I want to worship with my whole being (mind, heart, strength, etc.) - so words matter to me. I also don't want to reinforce bad theology by singing it. I am convinced that what we sing strongly shapes what we believe and what we believe is manifest in everything we do.

Worship leaders are often even more powerful teachers than even our best preachers. I usually tell new preachers (I do a preaching/teaching training course for churches that invite me) that they are fortunate if someone remembers just one of their carefully constructed points. What people usually remember from sermons are the stories. Be that as it may, those same people will be able to remember the songs they sing week after week. Songs lodge themselves into our minds and work their way into our hearts - the words we sing need to have the same care that we give the words we preach.

When I hear comments like, "it's just a song", as if it doesn't matter what we sing, I usually shudder inside. In worship it is never just a song - it is worship of the most high God, the Lord of Lords. Worship of such a God always deserves to be our best, our most passionate expressions of our best theology (that is talk about God). I believe this is one of the key areas where the Vineyard has excelled as a movement.

Vineyard worship, from the early days, consistently told us of a God who was accessible, available, and interested in meeting us and transforming our lives. We learned to fall in love with this God, and the refrains of our love songs echo throughout many a church today (well beyond our denomination). What an amazing offering we have made to the Church. When we sing joyfully of the idea that the creator of all actually loves us, what joy that inspires. I do not want us to lose that heart - what I want us to do is continue to mature in this gift and offer even more theologically sound songs and services of worship. I believe that this is what will let even more generations fall in love with our great God. The way we do this is to continue to craft theologically sound passionate worship, and let those joyous strains fill our churches and gatherings.

How have you seen the theology of the songs you sing shape your expectations of God?

Frank Emanuel, Freedom Vineyard, Ottawa.

* I know there are all kinds of theories about why worship wanes in our communities - but the core issue is, in my opinion, one of content. It doesn't matter how "masculine" we make worship, if you aren't discovering the God who created all that is then you are just creating more problems.

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